First TimeA Study in Fragrance Pt. 07
Author's Note: If you're just joining the story, here's a brief recap. Emily, an over-assured, privileged and sheltered North American white 18 year old athlete has discovered a secret room in the house she's lived in all her life. In lieu of paying a contractor to install two secret entrances into it, she offered her body to him. Now, after experiencing more intense sex than she'd bargained for, she's escaped to the family summer home for the weekend to reconsider her choices.
This far north, the sun came up even earlier than at home. Emily awoke, slipped on her suit and sat at the end of the dock, dangling her feet into the water, feeling the sunfish and crappies nipping at her toes. She would take a leisurely swim across the lake today, but not without one of her parents keeping pace with her in the boat. That isn't what Coach was referring to, she was certain. Still, her muscles were sore, so maybe she'd swim tomorrow. A morning breeze was picking up and she turned her attention to the sailboat tied next to the dock. It was an old Sunfish, nothing fancy, but a lot of fun to scoot about the small lake. She hopped in, put on her vest, raised the sail, dropped the rudder and set off, capturing the breeze.
She tacked back and forth across the lake, watching as households woke up, lights appearing in breakfast rooms, dogs barking on their morning walks. The air was cool, and it was going to stay that way. It was exactly what she needed to clear her head and give her some space.
At breakfast, her mother sensed something was off. "Are you okay, Em?"
She nodded, questioning why she would ask that.
Emily nodded. That would be a safe description. "Yep. I'm really focusing on the race, mom. Coach has been working us pretty hard, and I'm trying to keep my head in it. It's pretty much everything I'm doing right now.
"Except thinking about college," she added.
"Oh, that's months away, honey," her mother dismissed the idea. "Don't get yourself into a lather about that!"
Emily rolled her eyes, annoyed at her mother's reaction to her perennial worrying. Better that than the only other conversation I could be having. Still, she didn't want to be annoyed right now at all. "I'm just getting excited is all," she agreed.
"I was looking at that woman's journal last night while I was lying in bed," Emily's mother changed the subject. "Abby Crewitt was a complicated young woman."
Emily's ears perked up. She hadn't had a chance to dive into the journal and was excited to hear what her mother thought.
"She was a little older than Grand-Mama, you know," her mother turned to her, "and while they traveled in completely different circles, they lived in the same city…roughly speaking." Jen sat back and looked out the window.
That would be her mother's great-grandmother, Emily remembered. She hadn't heard her mother speak about Grand-Mama very much. Her mother was barely born when she had passed.
"It really wasn't the same city. They were living in completely different worlds from one another, even though they were only a few miles apart. But the outside world was changing for both of them." Her mother looked thoughtful. "They were caught up in the same turbulence and change. The coming of the railroads, the emergence of science as we have come to know it, the impact of global economics, the exploration of the human mind. Abby is documenting, although unwittingly, the impacts of these larger patterns, the emergence of Modernism for example, on her world view and daily activities."
Emily hadn't had this kind of conversation with her mother…ever. She eased into her chair and listened.
"I ran across this entry that was a revelation." Her mother opened the journal to a spot she'd bookmarked. "Listen:"
Mother was simply incorrigible today! I had to run from the room before I created a scandal, although my mere running was surely enough to earn me punishment. I had mentioned Mrs. Martinique's ideas about the independence of the fairer sex, and she called her, for all intents and purposes, a hussie! A prostitute! My mother thinks, that because a thinking woman might offer the mere suggestion that the fairer sex might have an equal place in the world, that she is promoting immoral behavior of the highest kind!
And what does that suggest of her opinion of me? I must find a way to get out of his household, but how? Without marrying, my options are limited. If I could get my own income, I should be able to afford to pay for room. But where, in fact? No place in this small-minded village. The City? I've read such opportunities exist, but with them great perils. Women with children borne out of wedlock. Women forced into positions more compromising than the simple subjugation to a man in marriage. Those stories make marriage look tempting, if I didn't know the truth about that institution.
Her mother stopped, looking across the table. "She could have been writing when I was her age, or even today! The same pressures. So little has changed." Her mother paused to think about what she'd just said. "Well, I hope at least something has changed for you and your generation."
Emily wondered, as she sat listening to her mother's reading from Abby's diary. Like she had said, Grand Mama was living at the same time and place, but her experience was anything like Abby's. So, it probably came down to class, Emily figured. My options are wide open. But Abby's were anything but.
Emily took the canoe out afterwards, paddling slowly around the edge of the lake. It would take an hour working at it, but she wanted to go slowly, working out the stiffness in her upper traps, her deltoids and even the twinges from her scalenes. She had heard the loons last night and was hoping she would see the hatchlings at the water's edges.
Lily pads, buds poking up among open blossoms, hid turtles and leopard frogs. She lingered next to the lakeside edge of the pads, watching the sunnies darting underneath, hoping to catch a glimpse of noses poking through the surface. In spite of the sun and clear blue sky, the temperature was cool; at least cool compared to what she'd been experiencing back home. The perfume from the room drifted into her consciousness, but she couldn't imagine where it came from. Maybe it's just in my clothes. With it, the image returned of her kneeling in front of Cos, the two of them naked, centered in the middle of The Study, her head bowed as if in prayer. The word supplicant came to her head but she wasn't sure it was what she meant, or if she even knew its meaning. She reached for her phone and remembered there was no service out where she had paddled. Supplicant. It rolled off her tongue.
The image persisted; she studied it, feeling what it meant to her, what it triggered in her. Yesterday it had given her a panic attack, but today, in the cool of the morning, her body working its muscles, it wasn't threatening at all. It felt right, it felt good. She wanted to recreate it when she got back. Was there something in the smell? Did Abby leave something in The Study that was affecting her? And the thought triggered more thoughts, more storytelling, distracting her mind as her body took the canoe around the lake.
She was on the far side when she pulled out of her reverie and looked across to their cabin and its cove. The conversation with her mother reverberated. Abby had been an independent woman trapped in a social system that prevented her from acting on her instincts and needs. She chose a path that was barely open to her: a gardener, working her craft that let her build a small business. Her early writing, in which she expressed a contemporary point of view about her dreams for herself, was a sharp contrast to the poems and sentiments she expressed in her pamphlets. Had she grown bitter? Resentful? Emily hadn't read enough to know, but the few snatches she had read felt like Abby was struggling, was working hard to help the women who subscribed to her tracts.
Emily remembered the sketchbook and the recipes. Perhaps those expressed a more positive side to Abby's thoughts and feelings than the pamphlets. Or maybe she was reading them all wrong. Maybe Abby was finding her way as best she could, crafting her own tools when so few were available to her: the power of botany, the language of flowers, the essence of plants to heal and nurture.
She worked her way back to the house, her muscles warm enough to turn on the power. She could feel the burn as her shoulders leveraged the oar through the water, the paddle slicing up and over, then sluicing in and pushing the canoe forward. One side then the other. She felt her back loosen up and she put her legs into it, compressing her core to drive the oar back, the boat forward. The lake was like glass, the morning breeze had died completely, letting the boat fly across its surface. Emily felt free, the sun on her back, her body moving in a complex rhythm, her thoughts flowing behind her, relaxed and happy.
She had worked up a sweat, but it was nothing compared to the past three days. Shouting hello she ducked into the shower, rinsed off and found a fresh pair of shorts and a t-shirt. Seeing Abby's recipe book, she grabbed it as she left the room. It was still mid-morning, her father had finished his breakfast and the two of them were reading in the front room.
"Hey dad!" She walked over and embraced him. "Did mom read anything from Abby's diary to you yet?" She wanted to talk to them about an idea that had popped up during her morning reflection.
"She did. That was a very interesting journal you found." He waited, knowing this was going somewhere. His book could wait.
"Remember that report I did for Ms. Fromier earlier in the year?" They both nodded, but she wasn't convinced. "The one about the house?"
That got the reaction she was expecting.
"I'm not sure if you remember, but she asked me to do a little more research to earn extra credit."
They nodded, waiting, never certain where Emily would take the conversation.
"Yeah. So. That extra credit was about Abby Crewitt."
They both looked surprised. "Really?" Her mother looked interested now. "What did you learn about Abby? You didn't even know about these things then did you?"
She shook her head, smiling that she had hooked at least one of them. "Nope. I was in the Special Collections section at the library and learned that Abby had a weekly column in her brother's newspaper. Did you know she was accused of witchcraft?" She held up Abby's book. "I think she was fooling around with medicinal plants."
Now that seemed to have sparked interest in both of them.
"Was there a trial?"
Always the lawyer she thought, nodding.
"Really?" Her mother was incredulous. "When was this? 1890s? I didn't hear about any witch trials that recently!"
"Wait. What? Oh. No." Emily backpedaled, mistaking her father's question. "Witch trials? Sorry! No. Her brother, Jay, who ran the newspaper, he sued for defamation of character. His. Not hers."
"Of course," her mother punctuated the interchange. "May I see that?" She reached out for the recipes."
Em handed her the book. "At least, I couldn't find anything that talked about her during the suit. It was all about her moral character in the newspaper articles though. Her brother defending, the accuser writing all sorts of fantasies…destruction of young women's morals, crying and screaming from the back of the house…"
Her parents both looked up from the book in surprise.
"Oh yeah, it was pretty crazy. I…," she almost started to talk about The Study but was saved by her mother's interruption.
"That's what I was trying to say at breakfast, Em," pointing her finger briefly. "She was trapped by circumstances. Her need to be independent crossed with the mainstream culture at the time. They didn't have words for women like Abby so they resorted to superstition. It was "uppity woman" in my time, but it basically meant the same thing."
"But…," Emily loved where this was going, "is that really true, mom? Do you think Abby's society used the word 'witch' the same way they said you were 'uppity,' or that strong women today are 'brash?' I'm not so sure. I really think they were trying to ostracize her, pull her out of 'proper society' altogether. Cast her out. They really tried to villainize her."
"Maybe you mean 'vilify?'" Her father. The lawyer.
She just looked at him, not really wanting to sidetrack the conversation into a grammar lesson. "What's the difference? Either way, I think it was pretty different calling her a witch from suggesting she might 'not know her place.'" She looked at both of them, ready to continue the debate.
"Exactly," her mother agreed. "You are right. The basic dynamic was the same, though: separate a woman from the mainstream accepted societal norms to bring her down a peg. That's all I was trying to say." She continued to leaf through the book, stopping to study a paragraph between scans.
"So, what happened?"
She looked at her father and switched up her thoughts. "Her brother didn't win the suit, newspapers apparently battled things out against each other all the time back then, and the court didn't find the charges rose to liable. Of course, if they'd said something about Jay instead of his sister Abby, it might have gone differently." She was fired up, the workout on the lake was driving her as much as the conversation.
"Anyway," she wanted to return to the real topic that had started this whole thing. "I've been so intrigued by what she was going through, I've been thinking about what I might want to major in in College."
They both sat back, interested, waiting.
"Botany," she said simply.
Her mother's smile froze for a moment and then she recovered. Her father was more diplomatic. "Are you thinking about getting into research or…?"
She hadn't thought that far. The idea of studying plants was intriguing to her. She shrugged.
"Well, I know you'll excel in whatever you put your mind to." Her mother's tone was sincere, so Em knew she was telling a truth, but the words were less than an enthusiastic endorsement.
She smiled, not wanting to get into it. "I know," she said agreeably. "I've got years before I have to commit to a major, but I thought I'd give it a chance and look into what the reqs are."
They both nodded. "Very sensible," her mother approved. "I'd like to learn more about that as you do." She was sincere, if touched with skepticism.
How interesting, Em thought about the conversation later. Abby's only course of action in her day was to pursue botany, but for my mother it seems to be beneath me. But then she thought about Grand Mama. Would her mother have thought it beneath her?
She had nothing to do the rest of the day. No plans. They were going to hang around until dinner time when her father had planned to fire up the barbeque. She looked out on the yard from her bedroom and realized she could actually work on her tan without being spied on by a bunch of horny men. She put on the skimpiest suit she'd brought, grabbed her phone and a towel and went in search of an open sunlit patch.
It was ironic to Emily that her mother seemed unenthusiastic about her interest in Botany, given how much time and energy she put into her gardening. As she went out the lakeside door and descended from the porch, she scanned the landscape. More 'Field and Stream' than 'Home and Garden,' her mother had once remarked to friends who had joined them a few summers past. "I wanted to create something that fit into this rugged landscape, that respected the lake and the land. Why plant ornamentals when these natives are so wonderful?"
Which didn't mean that her mother had left the yard to fend for itself. Anything but. Except around the dock, which she made sure was kept trimmed and free of anything that might trip or hinder their passage, all of the lakefront was planted with rushes and cattails, along with a list of plants Emily hadn't memorized. There were no lawns around the cabin. Instead, her mother had cultivated several kinds of native herbs and groundcover. In many places it was just moss, soft on her feet, but elsewhere it was broad leaved strawberries (that never bore fruit) or creeping vines, soft underfoot but easy to catch a toe on.
Emily picked her way to a sunny spot, grabbing a lounge chair along the way and lay back on her towel, letting the cool afternoon sun slowly bake into her body. She drifted off to sleep, and when she woke up, had to move the chair. The trees kept most of the yard in shade; her spot kept moving as the afternoon wore on. She checked in on her friends, posting photos of the lake and selfies to make them jealous.
She could feel the anxiety, a black dot, floating around in her brain, but she was determined not to feed it. So many things would make it expand: her mother's attitude toward her, the way she always needed to own the conversation, her dad's stupid jokes and the way he trivialized anything that wasn't interesting to him. She focused on her phone, she focused on the sun warming her, she focused on what she was going to do next week and the blackness expanded. She took in a breath and retreated from thinking about the future. Tonight. What should we do tonight? She wanted S'mores after dinner. She texted her mom to ask if they had the fixings. She would go into town to pick them up if they didn't.
She relaxed and enjoyed the sensation of sitting in the sun, the insects buzzing, the birds in the trees. She relaxed, knowing she was living a life that even her friends envied.
The rest of the day passed uneventfully. The topics of her future, of Abby, of anything controversial took a back seat to the local news: the village council considering an ordinance to protect the lake. Her parents were all for it, but others who hadn't had a chance to develop their properties were putting up a fight. In spite of napping in the afternoon, Emily was exhausted and crawled into bed shortly after the sun set.
The next morning she got her dad to agree to row next to her as she swam across the lake. It wasn't the first time: she had tackled it two summers earlier, as she was preparing to enter the junior varsity squad at school. Even though she was joining the track team, she had been interested in swimming her whole life, taking after her oldest sister Barbara. It was a tradition now, at least once every summer—last year she did it twice, and she didn't know when she might be back up again. Plus, it was much shorter than the Ironman—she figured it was less than a mile. If she was up for it, she might swim back, or follow Coach's directions and ride back with her dad.
It was as she expected, easy and lightweight. Her father trailed behind her a body length, making sure not to get in her way or distract her, but it wasn't really necessary. She felt like she could have had a conversation almost the entire time. It was good to be alive! To be able-bodied and in such good shape to tackle what many of her friends wouldn't think about doing. As she approached the beach, she felt the weeds brushing her hands and knew it was shallow enough to stand up. Her father glided next to her, the gravel scraping the hull.
"You okay?" He wasn't concerned, just checking in.
"Yep! That was sweet!" She looked back across the lake and thought about swimming back. It would have been fine, but she remembered she was going to drive back later and relished the idea of some alone time with her dad. "You okay if I row us back?"
Her father smiled and moved to the back of the boat to give her space at the oars. "Be my guest."
She turned the boat around, hopped in and grabbed the oars. "Thanks." She smiled at him, wanting to talk, but not sure where to start.
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